Unicorns with Carrot Horns

Raw Regurgitated, 3/21
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Stephanie McMahon did her level best out there last night, but it’s reached a point with her and Roman – along with HHH and Roman, Vince and Roman, pretty much other than Dean with Roman – where he turns it into the kind of bully that the Rock is when he’s sexually harassing Lana, but, like, as an ethos. This didn’t feel like it was trying to get the show off to a hot start. This felt like them trying to get something out of the way as soon as possible. It’s unclear what they can do in the next week to make people not want to have HHH – not me, personally, I was rooting for HHH against Daniel Bryan -- beat him to death with a sledgehammer, but they should probably start putting it together soon. And plan it better than that awful backstage segment later in the night.

The less is more approach is to everyone’s advantage as Roman continues to just not quite sound like a human who has spoke words before. He’s not dumb and he’s not bad, but how they didn’t just run the Brock main event back from last year, without risk of anyone ruining it for either guy this time is beyond me at this point. Paul Heyman is a good enough talker for both of them.

Shushing Steph was just gross. I made the mistake of doing this once to a female friend, entirely in jest, and immediately regretted it, not just for reason of conscience (it’s incredibly sexist and demeaning) but for concerns of physical harm towards my body (she could have murdered me). But I am also a small (and at the time, slight) man who hadn’t previously attacked the husband and 70-year-old father of the person I shushed, nor had I ever directly (or in Roman’s case) indirectly caused her physical harm. This isn’t about Roman Reigns being someone who abuses women, I’m not crazy. Nor is it about him not being allowed to stand up for himself: him blocking her slap, in particular, seemed totally fine and justified. I’d not even frame it as a social justice issue – though the WWE could certainly do better there when it comes to women (and people of color). It’s that this is the exact type of stuff that makes me not want to root for Roman Reigns. If the WWE ever hopes to get fans responding to him the way they need him to given the role they have for him, they need to make him more likable. And if they can’t, they need to start looking for someone who is.

***

I hate to use puns when talking about matches, but the opening match of the night between Kevin Owens and AJ Styles was a real knockout. But the ending was terrible. There’s no coincidence that crowds have essentially stopped chanting “AJ Styles” since Jericho brought it up the very first time. And every time they’ve tried to do it since the first it’s felt more and more like a bad joke they had used too many times to cut from the script.

But everything up to that point made me very excited for the next five to ten years. Unlike pretty much every other sport, guys enter their primes and collect most of their career highlights in their 30s – from guys like Owens (31) and Styles (38) now racing towards the main event scene of the biggest company in the world, to Brock Lesnar and John Cena (38) who, when on the card or healthy, continuously fill some of the largest stadiums and arenas in the world on reputation alone. Owens is also among a very specific class of 30ish performers, along with Ambrose, Reigns, Zayn, Rusev and Rollins who look poised to be the main event -- with slightly to much older veterans like Cesaro, Sheamus, Del Rio and imports like Styles, Nakamura and Itami – for the rest of ‘10s and a good portion of the ‘20s.

It feels like there is such a fine line to walk between making constant matches between the same performers feel like they are accomplishing something narratively and not just feeding the booking beast. The reason WrestleMania season is so much fun is that it allows for all that pent up rage to be released, with the Showcase of the Immortals also doubling as the Purge of Perpetual Midcard Ennui.

And if anyone still wonders why Kevin Owens is going to be star of the show in a few years, bite size segments like the one he had with Stephanie are what they should be looking at. Following a 20-minute match he followed with a promo, the mental agility and adherence to the things that work about his character he displayed are the things that separates performers like Batista from also-rans like Mark Jindrak.

***

*** WARNING YOU ARE NOW ENTERING A WRESTLING NERD DISCUSSION ZONE *** PLEASE KEEP EYES AND EARS INSIDE OF KAYFABE AT ALL TIMES ***

We are forced to think about it every other week, it feels like. This feud between New Day and the League of Nations, for every step forward, takes a step and a half in a different direction. al.

Some of the issues are structural. The name League of Nations just sucks, for instance. The Lads, the Ultras, the European Union, are all better, more fluid names which get the point across, all without also reminding people of high school social studies. It was a cute idea in the beginning, but even going by The League would work better than what they have now.

And they need to completely restructure how they are presenting themselves. If this interfaction war leads to some kind of crazy trios championship replacing the tag titles – or the second group of heretofore never ending string of stables using the Freebird rule – then whatever they are doing is great. But if they are looking to establish themselves as a distinct stable within the context of both professional wrestling as a whole and WWE as a microcosm, they need to build on their natural chemisty and turn into a self-perpetuating heat machine.

If Barrett is leaving, that may change things, but why he isn’t the leader of that group on the mic is more beyond comprehension that whatever is happening in the world title picture. Del Rio and Rusev are good on the microphone, punctuated by moments of brilliance. Sheamus is a shameful lobster head.

The other half is that, quite frankly, it’s much harder to deal with and a much deeper problem than anything the New Day has had in front of them so far: There’s no reason to root for them, no matter how bad the other guys are. It’s not that people don’t root for them, or shouldn’t root for them.

And it's not just this weird transition to prop comedy. Outside of last week, they’ve been such dominant shit talkers, it’s unclear why need our help. The mostly just use the audience as precisely that – a platform to talk about the things they like and the people they don’t – before running people over with a unicorn stampede.

Even though people may connect with them at a personal level – as I’ve said before, they are the first group of performers where I don’t just feel like I could be, but am friends with, reminding me of the kind of nerds and shittalkers that I gravitate towards socially – I personally don’t feel like I empower their characters to perform in ways they would without me.

This leaves them in a lurch, where the crowd roots for them to do New Day things, instead of because they do New Day things. It’s a hard one to get out of without help, and unless the League of Nations gives them more than they already have, one they’ll be stuck with until the right kind of tag team shows up to make us want to see the New Day give them the what for.

For now, we just have to hope that the crowd doesn’t want the New Day to make their opponents just go away.

*** WARNING YOU ARE NOW EXITING A WRESTLING NERD DISCUSSION ZONE *** PLEASE ENJOY A COMPLIMENTARY SNICKERS THAT WILL RELEASE YOU FROM YOUR TODD CHRISLEY-SHAPED PRISON ON THE WAY OUT ***

***

This whole bit was adorable, with the Big Show doing his best Paul Wight impression to talk up what really should become a cherished WrestleMania tradition that never actually happens on the show itself. Speaking of which, Bo showing up on my TV screen is always welcome, even if he uses the devil’s hand to try to shake. But the real cherry on this undercard sundae was Show’s “KANE!” as he was gingerly chokeslammed off the top rope, like he had never watched wrestling before.

The magic, at least for your correspondent, of the “Best in the World at What I Do” Jericho character is the sheer tonnage of shit he talks whenever he’s in front of a camera. It’s like if the first fifteen minutes of his podcast every episode was him trying to think of all the different ways you could possible call somebody a goober. It’s no “I’M FROM WINNIPEG, YOU IDIOT!”, but him screaming “HE DIDN’T BEAT ME AT WRESTLEMANIA!” at Cole and Fandango after the former mentioned Jericho’s loss to the latter at WrestleMania 29 on commentary is why he’s a first ballot Hall of Famer.

Not first ballot Hall of Fame was AJ Styles promo. While he’s light years ahead of where I thought he’d be, between the pacing and his Ahmed Johnson-esque struggle to get the crowd to chant “AJ Styles” left me wanting Jericho to just cut him off and say “Sure, sounds good.”

***

This was, even for the people in the crowd – who, as WrestleDeplhia podcast star and friend of the Classical, Mark Macyk, pointed out to me, had the ultimate payoff spoiled by the unexpected appearance of Sin Cara’s trampoline at the beginning of the segment -- an amazing twist on a what everyone though Owens was going for in his request to Stephanie, while still staying completely attune with character. And we all got to see Zach Ryder, who is also getting in an actual match for a real title at WrestleMania. So, that’s nice.

It was really lovely to see how much both the crowd and the six character beating the crap out of him truly seemed to hate Kevin Owens. It’s hard finding characters like him anymore. In cities like Philadelphia, where they want to root for someone like Owens, they are even more rare. So, cheers to Kevin Owens for keeping the heat going as long as he has.

This was both the best and worst parts of the Stephanie McMahon character when it comes to disciplining her employees/making faces lives miserable. Like Roger Goodell with absolute power – at least if absolute power is situation specific, given the Roman Reigns infestation they are dealing with -- the punishment seems arbitrary for the sake of being arbitrary. Sure, Owens interrupted Steph at an awkward moment, but it’s not as though he was even actively rude. She was just pissed and he was there. And if she was mad because he rather clearly threw up some bullshit out there after implying he was going to put together a completely different match on her behalf, that’s fine. She hinted at that when she corrected him on KO Mania, but -- as is the case with most things Authority -- they need to pick a lane and stay in it. Also, as we’ll learn later, they should probably learn to lock the doors

***

Great way to sell the Diva’s Title match at WrestleMania: all-hands promo where the entire history of their interwoven relationships is presented and critique in real time by the three participants and a legend who also happens to be one of their fathers. Good way to sell the Diva’s Title match at WrestleMania: Charlotte, Becky or Sasha challenges on of the better veterans on the roster. Bad way to sell the Diva’s title match at WrestleMania: this shit.

Of all of the things which have happened so far in the Roman Reigns-HHH saga, this -- more so than the endless title opportunities awarded for no reason, the terrible promos that seem like they were written by Vince himself and even the shushing -- was the worst. It’s not that Roman wanting to get at HHH is bad, or him waiting outside in the parking lot to do so is somehow problematic. It’s that, despite the fact that he walked at a brisk but reasonable pace for a good 100 feet towards the car, in clear view of anyone in it at the time, when he got there, the F#$#ING door was UNLOCKED. As much as I can find myself disagreeing with people regarding this very topic, when someone says “Lucha Underground’s storytelling ruins Raw for me”, this is what they should be talking about: we just want things to make sense, or at least have them treated as deliberately not (like how frigging awesome Mil Muertes is.)

What’s worse than a match no one cares about? A match that no one cares about that they try to treat like one that people do, while using the only thing they might care about -- meaning the Dudleys in Philadelphia -- being run out of the arena as the thing they wanted you to be the most excited for.

***

So, this idea -- that if Taker doesn’t win, it will be his last WrestleMania -- is precisely what this whole thing should have started with. Or, at least introduced way way way earlier. And more so than any other night in this storyline, the lack of full-time performers involved in the match itself left a gaping hole that even Vince couldn’t fill totally. It’s not that I don’t care about the stipulation -- I do, as it gives the motivation that Taker needs to him, while not taking anything away from the gravity of Shane losing -- but rather that I wish it was there for them to talk about over the past month. Now it’ll just be something they discuss in passing the week before the show, instead of something that becomes a cornerstone of not just the marketing of the show but the narrative of the entire weekend.

The problems with Vince’s promo -- which weren’t myriad, but certainly didn’t help -- were only exacerbated by Vince calling Shane Taker’s most formidable opponent at WrestleMania so far. Even if this wasn’t clearly insane because of Brock Lesnar and a a bit awkward because of own son-in-law HHH, they whole “he’s no longer my son” thing cuts directly against this. It is almost impossible to develop genuine pathos for a performer as limited in range as Vince, who has two modes,: One is the solemn and scared old man that comes out when is afraid of one of his employees beating the shit of him. The other is Donald Trump, which is pretty much every other moment of the day.

As the other half of the “this is what happens when you have to fill WrestleMania with part-time performers” double feature, Dean Ambrose wrestling Brock Lesnar stunt double Braun Strowman wasn’t just not saved, but actively harmed with Paul Heyman at commentary. It just reminded us that, while Paul Heyman is surely great, Brock Lesnar is who we want in the building with Dean, making us want to watch them smash each other with weapons, fists and probably a motor vehicle or two. If there’s room in the Lesnar budget for more appearances, Lesnar even sitting at commentary not saying anything would be better than what we were forced to sit through in last night’s main event.


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